03 Jan 2008, Posted by Eric Karstens in Media Policy, 0 Comments

Risk management in media policy (1): The concept of risk

The EU Directorate-General for Information Society and Media in December commissioned a study titled Indicators for media pluralism in the Member States – towards a risk-based approach. Behind this is a pretty ambitious objective: The European Union would like to come up with no less than a universal mechanism to make sure that the news media effectively support the public sphere while not being at odds with either commercial freedom or the diverse national media landscapes.

The final outcome of the study will not be presented before mid-2009, but since its impact on European media regulation may turn out to be rather fundamental, it merits a close scrutiny and discussion in a small series of articles. First, we need to take a look at how the concept of risk management interacts with media policy. Actually, this approach is so new and unorthodox that even well-versed risk experts had some initial difficulties grasping it. The idea is to apply learning from the natural sciences and technology to society and business.

Indeed, scientific and social progress has very much changed how societies – at least in the Western hemisphere – perceive all kinds of dangers and hazards. Illness, for instance, is in most cases no longer considered to be just a matter of adverse fortune, but as an occurrence well within the realm of human action: It can be prevented by layers of precautionary measures (one of the mainstays of the EU’s health strategy), and if diagnosed in spite of those, there are remedies available from modern medicine.

In order to prevent the occurrence of medical conditions, a complex set of schemes are in place. These can be very basic and general, such as the provision of clean drinking water, heating, and housing, or rather specific and targeted. People are educated as to the choices of healthy nutrition, inoculated against contagious diseases, or protected from harm through technical devices such as airbag systems, eyeglasses, or traffic lights.

Today, the original or underlying dangers and hazards therefore tend to be on citizens’ minds to a much lesser extent than earlier in history; these dangers do not cause the same amount of apprehension and concern any more. Instead of ill fate nobody can do anything about, many medical conditions are now merely regarded as risks: You can put a figure to how likely they occur and to how probably they can be managed successfully – either by avoiding them in the first place or by repairing or at least mitigating the damages.

Therefore, modern society is very much concerned about the dependability and security of the man-made measures that are being applied in order to control and manage all kinds of risks: That water might be contaminated, that a vaccination could trigger the disease it is supposed to prevent, or that a car driver would disregard a red light. And this perspective results in a very fundamental change of paradigms compared with how people went about their lives even only 60 or 70 years ago. Since risks are expected to be manageable, there automatically arises an ethical obligation to do so and to do it right, i.e., to apply the appropriate measures as justly and as thoroughly as possible. Since fate is more or less individual, society or the government cannot do much about it.

But in contrast to that, most cases of risk control involve collective efforts such as the establishment of and compliance with laws, regulations and procedures. Consequently, these risks become an issue for society as a whole. As a result, people increasingly perceive even individual or personal risks as being a collective responsibility; they feel that the state or the community they live in – at least theoretically – can do something about them. This concerns, for example, the foundations of the welfare state and societal solidarity in general, but specific provisions such as the ban of smoking or consumer protection regulations as well.

However, risk does not equal risk: Individuals and interest groups often differ on the factual interpretation of risk factors of one and the same technology, practice, or challenge. They employ a variety of value systems as well, making the evaluation of risks ambiguous: The owners of nuclear power plants tend to feel that the technology is safe. Environmentalists do not think so, and a lot of politicians get caught in the middle. Media are, of course, another prime example for this: The freedom of engaging in business activities often clashes with both individual interests and requirements of society, not the least of which is the concept of pluralism.

Therefore, the field of risk management is wide open for politics; it is frequently even considered to be political by its very nature, since how somebody interprets risk often depends on ideological attitude, cultural background, personal values, communication proficiency, etc. – main areas of operation for political parties and all sorts of interest and pressure groups. And because of its political nature, risk is also a natural topic for the media: It is about conflict and drama, it sells copies and attracts audiences – sometimes even to the extent that coverage and public awareness of risk gets out of proportion compared to the actual hazards involved. Therefore, society can function as an amplifier of risk or at least of risk perception, and thus, once more, prompt ensuing political reactions, and so on. The next article will focus on how risk-based regulation fits into the context of the European Union’s policy-making.